To the writers of the Tudor and Stuart "books of advice on marriage", there is no doubt what a marriage should be like. They set out clearly the roles of a husband and wife, and harshly criticised those who did not conform to this prescribed ideal. If these "books of advice" were few and far between, then their contents, and perhaps their very existence could be deemed insignificant, but because they are fairly numerous, and were published and republished constantly in the latter half on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they must at least be considered worthy of study. What is more, the arguments each advance are very similar in nature. When looking at these 'conduct books', two fundamental questions arise. Firstly, do they actually reflect relationships between husbands and wives in this period, or do they merely represent an ideal; an ideal that was ardently strived for, but badly fallen short of? Before one can begin to answer these questions, it is perhaps necessary to look at what exactly these 'conduct books' said. There were several prominent conduct book writers, among them William Whateley and William Harrington, but arguably the most outstanding was William Gouge. His Of Domesticall Duties, written in 1622, was widely read and went into several editions. These writers, whether Catholic or Protestant, were largely concerned with the power relationship between spouses, and the duties of each. They fervently advocated the authority of the husband who was said to be both the spiritual, and actual head of the marriage. Gouge stated ;

"He is the highest in the family, and has both authority over all and the charge of all is committed to his charge, he is as king in his own house." (1)

And Henry smith in 1591;

"Man is to his wife in the place of Christ to his church." (2)

A wife was to obey and submit herself to her husband in everything he commanded, as long as what he asked was not immoral, even if it was against her will. William Gouge stated;

"She may do nothing against God's will, but many things she must do against her own will if her husband require her." (3)

Once the writers had established the nature of the power-relationship between a married couple, they usually went on to describe the different duties belonging to each partner. Thomas Smith defined them as such;

"The man to travail abroad; the wife to save that which is gotten, to tarry at home, to distribute that which comes of the husband's labour for nurture of the children and family of them both, and to keep all at home neat and tidy." (4)

The two worldly spheres were thus easily divided between the sexes. The external world belonged to the husband, and the internal to the wife. Without a doubt a woman's place was very much within the home, her primary duty being to look after her husband and children, putting their needs and welfare before her own.

To what extent are these books an accurate reflection of a husband and wife relationship in the early modern period? It is perhaps difficult to say with any degree of certainty, as each marriage was unique, and the relationship between spouses depend then, as now, to a considerable extent on their individual characters, the circumstances surrounding the actual marriage, and their social status. A couple in exactly the same social position with the same number of children could have totally different kind of relationship. Yet it is perhaps possible to have internal differences, but for the framework of marriage to stay the same. Wrightson states;

"...each couple needed to work out for themselves their marital roles within the context of their general expectations of marriage." (5)

It is with the framework of marriage that the 'conduct book' writers are mainly concerned. They state what they believe the individual roles of a couple should be, but they leave some leave way in the actual everyday performance of these roles. As long as a wife acknowledged her inferiority, and behaved always in a way that befitted her status and role as wife and mother, then she could do whatever she liked. The married world the writers were advocating was not an arbitrary one, even if it would seem so by modern standards, as the emphasis was always on companionship, the need for love and affection, and the sharing of domestical duties. Henry Smith in his Preparative to Marriage stated;

"...a marriage is called Conjugium which signifieth a knitting or joining together, showing that unless there be a joining of hearts and knitting of affections together, it is not marriage indeed, but in show and name, and they shall dwell in a house like two poisons in a stomach and one shall ever be sick of the other." (6)

Dod and Cleaver put forward that husbands and wives should discuss important matters as long as the wife remembers who is the head and airs her opinions accordingly;

"She may in modest sort show her mind, and a wise husband will not disdain to hear her advice, and follow it also if it be good." (7)

The husband may have been superior, but he was not to be a tyrant, rather a loving guide and companion. The writers disagreed over whether a husband should use physical punishment against his wife, and although in general they believed that a husband did have the right to modestly chastise his wife if she was failing to live up to his expectations, it was not a recommended course of action.

Some historians believe that the 'conduct books' are a good indication of the relationship between husbands and wives, and the nature of the family in the early modern period. Ozment in his book When Father's Ruled, states;

"The advice of moralists may not have been so far from peoples actual practices as modern historians have tended to believe. The way life should be lived and the way it is lived, the ideal and the fact of existence, have a certain reciprocity." (8)

And Alison Wall believes that they do reflect expectations of marriage, especially expectations relating to the role of the wife. She states;

"Justices of the peace, and judges of the ecclesiastical court, expected women to be obedient to their husbands; to display due submission; to be chaste before and after marriage, and faithful during it." (9)

Certainly it can be seen from contemporary diaries and letters that there were marriages which fitted this mould. Isaac Archer said in 1668;

"I found my wife perfectly devoted to please me, and I blessed God for giving me one with a meek and quiet spirit, and well disposed, and apt to take in the best things. I found she was patient under her sickness, and willing to hear any instruction from me." (10)

And Thomas Folly in 1675;

"She was a most loving wife and tender nurse to me, if she at anytime offended me, she could not be quiet until she had acknowledged her offence and was reconciled." (11)

There is also some indication that these roles were accepted by women themselves. Lady Colton wrote to her daughter;

"You have subjected yourself to him and made him your is an extreme obloquie and disgrace in the end to herself, to have the woman the talker, and over bouldly undertakenge to speak or answer her husband being in place." (12)

However, it is debatable whether the 'conduct books' do accurately reflect a typical husband-wife relationship in this period. Philip Stubbes may have written in 1591 A Christal Glasse for Christian Women, and in it lavishly praised his deceased wife Katherine, who according to him was the model of womanhood, and so may have Thomas Folly and Isaac Archer so praised their wives, but arguably these wives, if they truly were so virtuous, were the exception. Had they been the norm, then there would have been no cause to venerate them, and it must be remembered that it was in the husband's own interest to present as favourable an image of his wife as he could as this would greatly enhance his own reputation.

The very existence of these books suggests that the ideal was not being reached. Doris Parsons comments on the works of William Whateley;

"It may at least be gathered from all this rhetoric that the married folk around Banbury were sorely in need of advice, that husbands tended to beat their wives and that wives were ready to scold their husbands." (13)

If everything is working as it should, there are no need for changes. A man who can drive hardly needs instructions. For such books to be published and to be widely dispersed, there must have been a demand, or if not a demand, at least a need. Far from accurately reflecting the status quo, it is likely that the books were the anti-thesis of what marriage was generally like. The very title of William Whateley's A Bride Bush alone suggests this;

"A Bride-Bush or A Wedding Sermon: Compendiously describing the duties of Married persons: By performing whereof, Marriage shall be to them a great Helpe which now finde it a little hell." (14)

Similarly William Gouge in his influential Of Domesticall Duties, outlines what the ideal relationship should be, and then goes on to say how badly it is being forsaken, especially by the wife. He says that wives should be meek, humble, obedient, should willingly subject themselves to their husbands, and always speak to them reverently, but, on the contrary is;

"...the wappish and shrewish disposition of many wives to thier husbands, who care not how hastily and unadvisedly they speak to them." (15)


"Contrary to the aforenamed subjection is the opinion of many wives, who think themselves every way as good as their husband, and no way inferior to them." (16)

Certainly there is evidence for the existence of termagant wives. Edmund Harrold for example wrote in his diary for the twenty fifth of June, 1712;

"I observe that it's better to keep good decorum and to please wife; it makes everything pleasant and easy." (17)

Although the book Conjugium, Conjurgium (1673) by William Ramsey is not typical of the Tudor-Stuart 'conduct book', and is fiercely attacked by the anonymous writer in Marriage Asserted (1674), it does give an interesting insight into the actual practice of marital relationships. The book begins by advocating an ideal, and in line with the others emphasises the need for the wife to submit herself totally to her husband, however, the main argument of his book seems to be to discourage men from entering the state of matrimony. What is seen as "a little hell" (18) to Whateley, is clearly a big hell to Ramsey. He mentions the qualities a man should look expect in a wife, but then goes onto say;

"...if thou canst meet with such a wife, then thou mayst be happy... But when we hundred thousand shipwracket; for one that arrive to his sweet haven of contentment in marriage; it should make thee, methinks tremble and fear to enter into this tempestuous and dangerous ocean."(19)

He plainly asks;

"Where is a good wife to be found ?" (20)

Although the purpose of "Marriage Asserted" is to defend the state of marriage against the criticisms aired by Ramsey, it too implicitly suggests that not all is as it should be, although unlike Gouge and Ramsey this author believed that this was due to shortcomings in both partners, not only in the wife. He says that although there are many women who;

"...are monsters of nature, guilty of all crimes which by the laws of God and Man are so accounted; so there are numbers that dignify their sex." (21)

It can be gathered from these pieces of evidence that not all wives were willing to accept their supposed inferiority. It is perhaps not surprising that men felt the need to reaffirm their superiority. Alison Wall argues that the marital world advocated by the 'conduct books' was what males wanted it to be, reflecting their ideals rather than the truth. She states;

" wrote mirrors for matrons, but the mirrors reflected male dreams of marriage." (22)

She argues that these books were bought by males and read by them. There is also a suggestion that men were not totally oblivious to the subordinating effect such ideas had on women. It may be argued that it is only with the benefit of hindsight that it is possible to see these books as a means of reinforcing the status quo, but some men at least recognised the benefits of disseminating such ideas. John Evelyn wrote in 1704;

" careful to educate them accordingly; humble, modest, moderate, good housewives, discretely, frugal, without high expectations which will render them discontented, melancholy, and sometimes resolve to dispose of themselves meanly and prove a continual burden and reproach." (23)

A disobedient wife was not only a threat to a man's peace of mind, but to his reputation. However the situation cut both ways. A man was nothing if his wife was undisciplined and unrespectable, and it reflected badly on her if her husband and family were neglected. This duality was sometimes implicitly aired by the women themselves; Lady Payton wrote to her daughter;

" careful that whatsoever you doe, to love honer and obey your husband in all things that is fitting for a reasonable creature. In this you shall show yourself a vertuous wife whos pris in not to be valued." (24)

and Maria Touchet, who married Thomas Thyne in 1601, gave the impression of accepting her husband as her head, but a closer examination of her words suggests that far from accepting her inferiority, she knew how to use these ideals to manipulate her husband. When aggrieved over his refusal to allow her to run his estate in his absence, she cleverly wrote;

"...I am both sorry and ashamed that any creature should see that you hold such a contempt of my poor wits, that being your wife, you should not think me of discretion to order...your affairs in your absence, but if you be persuaded that it is most for your credit to leave me like an innocent fool here, I will more contentedly bear the disgrace. Others...can wonder (as they well may) that my advice and consent (being in right to be mistress there) should in no cause be taken, no not so much as in choosing of servants." (25)

When trying to assess whether the 'books of advice' are an accurate reflection of married life in this period, it is perhaps necessary to look at who wrote the books and the audience for whom they where addressed. Different social groups may have had different perceptions of marriage. It is probable that the ideal prescribed by men such as Gouge was meant to be universal, and the advice to be just as relevant for the masses as well as the elite, but in all likelihood, it is probable that the books were disseminated amongst the middle and upper classes. Not only because a large majority of the masses were illiterate, but because the contents of the books would seem to suggest a privileged audience. There are constant references to estates and servants, but for the masses this would be irrelevant as they had neither servants or estates. Certainly the modes of behaviour referred to in the books were not really practical for the average plebian wife. Prescribing the ideal duties of husband and wife was all well and good for those who had the time to read them , but the average husband and wife did not. The wife had far more important things to worry about than the way she was supposed to address her husband. She just had to get on with living. She could hardly sit with her feet up absorbing the words of Whateley when she had three of four hungry children to feed and provide for. Neither could she sit and contemplate the morality of taking the initiative in household affairs - she often had little choice. The income of many families, especially at the end of the sixteenth century when incomes were low, and prices high, was not enough to live on. It was often essential for the wife to work either outside the home, or by producing goods from within to supplement her husband's wages. Gottleib states;

"The wife of a poor labourer in a town could not afford to pay attention to the theory that men's proper role was to support their families. She did whatever work she could find, sometimes on her own selling fish or fruit in the market, sometimes in the employment of entrepreneurs who paid her for sewing, spinning, or embroidery." (26)

It could perhaps be argued that the companionship emphasised by the 'conduct books' applied more to couples at the lower end of the social ladder than those at the top, they simply had to work together and perform their individual roles in order to provide for the family. The women of the upper classes may have been essential to the family in terms of her financial and social worth, but arguably she contributed less to the well-being of the family. In many ways it could function fairly well without her as the children were taken care of by nurses, and the cooking and cleaning by servants. Such women were very much "kept women", and so, far more vulnerable to male domination, and a feeling of being dependant on men, whether a father or husband. Wrightson argues they were;

"...more ornamental and idle - more possessions to be displayed than partners." (27)

For the lower classes dependancy was mutual. In the sixteenth century, England was predominantly agricultural, and so agriculture was the main line of work for most. Such work is strenuous and thus the husband would depend on his wife to give him the food he needed, and she dependant on him to provide it, not only for himself, but the whole family. The conduct book advocated a meekness, but arguably this was far more appropriate for an upper class woman than a lower. To Gouge and Whateley, meekness was a trait of perfection, but to the labouring farmer, it could be more of a hindrance than a help. He would need a wife who was independent, strong, forceful, could keep the children disciplined, could deal with people, use her initiative, and know how to strike a bargain at the market place. If she had to consult her husband on every single matter, neither of them would get much done. This does not mean to say that she did not regard her husband as the superior partner, in all likelihood she did. As has been seen, such beliefs were aired in private letters between women of the aristocracy, and in age which was constantly advocating male supremacy, it is difficult to see how this would not have penetrated the culture of the masses.

It is perhaps significant that the majority of the 'conduct books' were written by Puritans. It is perhaps therefore no coincidence that the height of these books was the seventeenth century when Puritans were politically prominent. Wrightson goes as far as saying that they were a "Puritan genre" (28). Certainly both Gouge and Whateley were Puritans. Therefore, considering that these books were written predominantly by one religious denomination, it is necessary to ask how representative they were of society in general. It is impossible to say conclusively, but it would seem that the books were in large part a reflection of puritan attitudes to marriage, not representative of society as a whole. To begin with, although the Puritans were politically prominent in the mid-seventeenth century, arguably they only constituted a relatively small percentage of the population. Puritanism is also known for it's extremity in relation to moral issues. It is therefore not surprising that they would have rigid, perhaps rather extreme views on the institution of marriage. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries may have been the age of patriarchy, but is unlikely that theory always converted into practice, or even that the theories were unanimously accepted. It is significant that Gouge felt it necessary to justify and defend his view of marriage. His words suggest that the marital state he was advocating, and the subordinate state of women, was far from the norm;

"This just Apology I have been forced to make, that I might not ever be judged (as some have censured me) 'an hater of women'." (29)

Some historians would dispute this, Kathleen Davies argues that the Puritans were not necessarily advocating a new view on marriage, but that they were merely continuing a tradition, and reflecting established beliefs on marital duties and the inferiority of the wife. Wrightson also argues that there was nothing new in the type of mutuality they were advancing and that they were very much;

"...part of the Christian mainstream." (30)

But whether this is true or not, it is likely that the views of the very religious, puritan or even Catholic, were not typical of the views of society at large or reflecting the actual practice of marital roles in reality, especially in private. Wrightson argues that there was a difference between the way families behaved in private and in public;

"The picture which emerges indicates the private existence of a strong complementary and companionate ethos, side-by-side with and often overshadowing theoretical adherence to the doctrine of male authority and public female subordination." (31)

It is certainly plausible that publicly husbands and wives conformed to the ideal, it was detremental for the family's reputation if they did not, but that privately, their relationship was more equal and loving.

Are 'conduct books' an accurate reflection of marital relationships in the early modern period? Arguably in many ways they are not. As Alison Wall argues they may have reflected to some extent male perceptions of marriage and the formal expectations of society, but in all likelihood the actual relationships between couples was different. It would seem that the authors, themselves only representing a small percentage of the population, were merely presenting and advocating an ideal. Had marital relationships been as the authors suggested they should be, there would have been no viable reason to write the books in the first place. It can be gathered from the contents of the books themselves that not all women were willing to play the role of the subordinate wife. Neither would such a role be practical for the women of the lower classes who had to be strong willed to adequately provide for the family. There may have been some marriages that conformed to this ideal, especially perhaps among the upper classes where the women had less family responsibilities, and whose status dictated a certain pattern of behaviour, but even among these women there is reason to believe that the model wife described by the writers was a rare breed. In all, it would seem that the books were just what they claimed to be; guides to help a couple work out their marital difficulties, and the difference between the marital relationship which men such as Gouge and Whateley emphasised, and the actual practice in everyday life - the difference between the ideal and the reality - was in all probability, immense.


K. M. Davies, Continuity and Change in literary Advice on Marriage, in R. B. Outhwaite (ed) Marriage and Society (London, 1981)

L. Pollock, 'Teach her to live under obedience': the making of women in the upper ranks of early modern England, Continuity and Change, 4,2, (1989)

N. H. Keeble, The Cultural identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman (London, 1994)

R. Houlbrooke (ed.), English Family Life (Oxford, 1988)

S. D. Amussen, An Ordered Society (oxford, 1988)

K. Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London, 1982)

A. Wall, Elizabethan precept and Feminine practice, History, 75, (1990)

M. Prior (ed.), Women in English Society 1500-1800 (London, 1986)

A. Fraser, The Weaker Vessel (London, 1984)

W. Seymar, Conjugium Conjurgium 1673 by William Ramsey and Marriage asserted 1674 Anonymous (New York, 1976)

B. Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World from the Blackdeath to the Industrial Age (New York, 1993)

C. Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York, 1975)

D. M. Parsons, The English Woman In History (London, 1957)

N. L. Jones, The Birth of the Elizabethan Age (Oxford, 1993)

S. E. Ozment, When Fathers Ruled (Cambridge, 1983)


1. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622) cited in K.Wrightson, English Society 1580-1680 (London, 1982) p.90.

2. Henry Smith A Preparative to Marriage (1591) cited in N. H. Keeble, The Cultural identity of Seventeenth-Century Woman (London, 1994) p.148.

3. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622) cited in K. M. Davies, Continuity and Change in literary Advice on Marriage, in R. B. Outhwaite (ed), Marriage and Society (London, 1981) p.69.

4. Thomas smith De Republica Angorium cited in N. L. Jones, The Birth of the Elizabethan Age (Oxford, 1993) p.111.

5. S. D. Amussen, An Ordered Society (oxford, 1988) p.92.

6. Henry Smith A Preparative to Marriage (1591) cited in N. H. Keeble, Op. Cit. p.148.

7. John Dod and Richard Cleaver cited in S. D. Amussen, Op. Cit. p.42.

8. S. E. Ozment, When Fathers Ruled (Cambridge, 1983) p.70.

9. A. Wall, Elizabethan precept and Feminine practice, History, 75, (1990)p.27.

10. Isaac Archer (1688) cited in R. Houlbrooke (ed.), English Family Life (Oxford, 1988) p.79.

11. Thomas Folly, (1675) cited in R. Houlbrooke, Ibid. p.88.

12. L. Pollock, 'Teach her to live under obedience': the making of women in the upper ranks of early modern England, Continuity and Change, 4,2, (1989) pp.247-248.

13. D. M. Parsons, The English Woman In History (London, 1957)p.109.

14. William Whateley, A Bride-Bush cited in C. Camden, The Elizabethan Woman (New York, 1975) p.314.

15. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622) cited in N. H. Keeble, Op. Cit. p.158.

16. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622) cited in N. H. Keeble, Ibid. p.155.

17. Edmund Harrold, (Diary entry for 25 June, 1712) cited in R.Houlbrooke, Op. Cit. p.66.

18. William Whateley, A Bride-Bush cited in C. Camden, ibid. p.314.

19. William Ramsey, Conjugium Conjurgium in W. Seymar, Conjugium Conjurgium 1673 by William Ramsey and Marriage Asserted 1674 Anonymous (New York, 1976) pp.17-19.

20. William Ramsey, Conjugium Conjurgium in W. Seymar, Ibid. p.20.

21. Anonymous, Marriage asserted (1674) in W. Seymar, Ibid. p.20.

22. A. Wall, Op. Cit. p.38.

23. John Evelyn (1704) cited in L. Pollock, Op. Cit. p.242.

24. Lady Payton in L. Pollock, Ibid. p.247.

25. Maria Touchet, cited in A. Wall, Op. Cit. p.29.

26. B. Gottlieb, The Family in the Western World from the Blackdeath to the Industrial Age (New York, 1993) p.93.

27. K. Wrightson, Op. Cit. p.92.

28. K. Wrightson, Ibid. p.44.

29. William Gouge, Of Domesticall Duties (1622) cited in S. D. Amussen, Op. Cit. p.45.

30. K. Wrightson, Op. Cit. p.91.

31. K. Wrightson, Ibid. p.92.